I recently read Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon. The book is a series of essays on genre fiction, and how that’s not a dirty thing. A couple of the essays (“Kids’ Stuff” and “The Killer Hook: Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!”) deal specifically with comics, and Chabon—a geek if I’ve ever read one—has a whole hell of a lot to say about comics as entertainment as literature. More said from more experience than I have. So, what I’m going to do is something slightly different.
I don’t think there’s a single person I know who takes comics as seriously as the clichéd comic book nerd. Even my most comic-ridden friend can take the piss out of the institution. (Usually directed at Marvel’s Stan Lee, fist in the air, shouting, “Gamma rays!” “Radioactive spiders!” and “Excelsior!” in a saliva-ridden voice.) That said, those friends of mine who have read graphic novels or comic books will tell you that there is vast potential for the genre to be just as literary as, say, 1984—largely thanks to that crazy man, Alan Moore. With the growing amount of films adapted from graphic novels and long-running comic series, the art form is entering the mainstream, but there are still plenty of things that scare off the normal folk from going into a comic book store and picking up an issue of a major title. So, in a roundabout way that’ll eventually lead us to what the title of this thing is talking about, I’m going to give my thoughts on why this is.
If you pick a person from the street, hold them at gunpoint, and demand that they tell you the two major comic publishers, chances are they won’t say Image or Dark Horse—and Top Shelf is right out the window. Nope, they’ll likely say Marvel or D.C. (That is, they’ll say that if they pay attention to what precedes the latest superhero flicks.) So, like our terrified straw man, we’ll throw all the other quality publishers out of the window and take a very, very brief look at the two houses.
D.C. houses heroes who—I think I’d be fairly safe in saying this—are the biggest names in comics: Superman and Batman. As much of a Marvel fan I am, it would be profoundly idiotic for me to try and make the claim that Superman and Batman don’t pervade American society more than any other heroes. Why this is—well, there’s the long history of that that, frankly, I don’t have the backing to handle. It is plainly obvious, though, that these two are the main guys. Superman is the superhero. Hell, he was the first of the bunch. Though the souped-up boy scout we know today was slowly built up through the 30s, he was always the guy with the powers. Birthed of an alien race under a red sun, he was sent here from Krypton when yadda yadda yadda, etc. etc. etc., go find a five year old and get them to tell you the story. And then you’ve got his counterpart, Batman, inhabiting Gotham, the dark side of Metropolis.
You know, I could go on and on—and nearly did, just then—but the point is this: With superheroes like those two, D.C. finds themselves burdened with the near-necessity to be the primo publishing house. The Batman title has given us some of the darkest storylines to grace comics, some of the most serious questions posed, and, yup, some of the most depraved—and thus, most interesting—villains. Naturally, D.C. doesn’t limit the grown-up possibilities of comics to Batman.
Also from D.C., we’ve received two of the most influential graphic novels—both from one author: Alan Moore. V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Admittedly, I haven’t read V, and have only seen the Wachowski film—which I’ve been told steers well clear of its source material in a lot of respects—so I’m going to briefly go with the latter before careening towards Marvel Comics.
It’s telling that Watchmen hit Time’s 100 most influential novels of the century. This is a layered story full of symbols—the good kind of symbols, the kind of symbols that work without being understood as symbols. Nearly every character can be seen in a variety of ways; some of the heroes in the graphic novel are representatives of political and social thought (Rorschach being Ayn Rand’s objectivism, whereas Ozymandias represents a socialistic utilitarianism) brought to extremes, some represent eras drawing to a close (you might be able to make the case that the Comedian represents a world that ends with the Cold War). Personally, this book made me think more than about half of the novels I’ve had to read for literature courses over the past five years. (Edith Wharton, I’m looking at you.) That, my friends, is the definition of literature.
You might be wondering what I’m trying to get to, here. Well, earlier, I talked about the collection of essays I read. One of them had to do with the comic book—as a genre—trying to be seen as a serious art form rather than being specifically for kids; further, the essay talked about how this was a potentially alienating thing, turning away readers of an early age. The comic book, the essay said, in its desire to be seen as serious, alienates the most important base of readers: kids with disposable income who, at the end of the day, want something to escape into. Well, Alan Moore was one of the writers the essay mentioned by name. And, wouldn’t you know it, Chabon’s right. For people with college educations, who are trained to critically think at the turn of every page, look at subtext, discern meaning from every image, paragraph, and sentence, the presence of people like Alan Moore is a great thing. We get to pretend we’re kids (“Ha, look, I’m reading a comic book”) while being adults at the same time (“Really, the death of a single individual is a tragedy, but in the name of world peace, Ozymandias made the right choice”). However, for anyone stumbling their way into a movie theater to see some righteous ass-kicking, then moral conundrums are the last thing they want to see. Confusion takes the place of the debate that should follow something like Watchmen, and a film—or comic book—is misunderstood. (That’s not to say Watchmen didn’t have it’s share of violence—it did.) And then comes the eternal debate about whether or not every work should have an underlying meaning. This debate is something I have on a near daily basis with myself when I’m looking through my stories and thinking, “I’ll never be a Writer, I have too much fun,” and is, frankly, not what I’m trying to do here.
(“Sounds like it,” you might be saying. Fair enough, but hold on.)
What I am trying to do is give you a prime example of the seriousness of what a) comics are capable of and b) what they’re trying to do. And now, with the prime example from D.C. out of the way, we’re going to move to Marvel.
Marvel Comics. The home, I like to think, of inherent batshit insanity. Some of the most insane heroes come from here. You’ve got The Fantastic Four—all who were on the same ship as it was hit from the same gamma radiation force, yet received different powers for some reason. You’ve got The Hulk—a dude with anger issues who, inexplicably, turns green and favors purple shorts. You’ve got Captain America—the boy scout super soldier. You’ve got Wolverine—the berserker super soldier. You’ve got—well, you know the cast. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Venom, Carnage, Magneto. Oh, then you’ve got Doctor Strange—or, as I like to think of him, How H.P. Lovecraft Saw Himself. Looking at that list, you’d expect to Marvel to be the most happy-go-lucky place publishing comics out there. “Nope,” you’d think, “no way these guys can try to be serious with that cast.”
Oh, how wrong you are. Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy a.k.a. Iron Man, is a recovering alcoholic. Captain America has a love-hate relationship with the administration of the United States—sometimes going so far as to drop the star-bedazzled shield and go incognito in the face of a serious ethical dilemma. Spider-Man is a neurotic mess, sometimes bordering on being a mook. I mean, yeah, it makes sense from a character-building point-of-view, but it’s all a bit absurd when you take a step back and look at who these characters are.
Characters aside, Marvel did a—admittedly great—series of storylines lumped under the umbrella term of Civil War. The whole thing is, essentially, a thinly-veiled analogy/metaphor/take your pick of the PATRIOT Act and the ethical ramifications of standing up for rights vs. being a patriot—and then, of course, the questions about what makes a patriot. Once again, brilliantly done, and not any more heavy-handed than a bad novel trying to make a point, but, at the end of the day, you’re taking a look at the pages in front of you and seeing a Norse god flying through the air on his hammer. The whole shebang has this vast reservoir of brilliant absurdity just under the surface that, when stuff like this crops up, no one seems to notice.
Cue the greatest character of all time: Deadpool. Yes, greater than Batman. Better than Cap? Afraid to say so. Why? Why would I call this insane, fourth-wall-breaking, katana-wielding madman be the best character? Simple: In a universe where a guy with his head in the middle of his chest (M.O.D.O.K.) is a legitimate threat instead of in a freak show, Deadpool is the only character who seems to draw attention to the absurdity of it all. In fact, his presence seems to be enough to get all of the other characters to join in.
Take, for example, the latter part of the Cable and Deadpool title. You have a new character tagging along with Deadpool, Bob. Bob is an agent of HYDRA—a fascist organization prone to chanting “HAIL HYDRA!”—who joined solely for the dental plan. Bob is also Deadpool’s hostage. (Deadpool refers to him as a pet, and he is, truthfully, little more than a pet.) Also in Deadpool’s group of friends is Weasel—who was captured by HYDRA and became the Penetraitor (mind the ‘i’) for a brief instant, almost gutted by Wolverine. (HYDRA, incidentally, trains all their troops to fight against him—in Bob’s words, “Well, the classes were ‘Tactics of Retreat 101,’ ‘Advanced Tactics of Surrender,’ and ‘Hiding Places 301.’)
When hired by Doctor Strange to go through the nether, Deadpool’s reaction is, “By the onion rings of Rangoon!”
While trying to instigate a fight with Wolverine in order to clear his head (by order of his psychiatrist, an ex-supervillain who cures people so his wife will sleep with him), Deadpool uppercuts Kitty Pryde while shouting, “Shoryuken!”
When first faced with Bucky—Captain America’s first sidekick—and his incredibly filthy mouth, Deadpool makes a running joke out of it. (While Bob keeps going back in time just before Bucky stabs or shoots him.)
The point is this: Through Deadpool, we’re reminded of the nature of comics. They’re whacky. They’re supposed to be fun. A common sight in the Deadpool comics is the recap page, where Deadpool sits at a desk in a studio set up to look like a late-night talk show, addressing the readers. He sometimes breaks into Marvel and harasses the editors. Deadpool, when not impaling people, makes comics fun again. More often than not, the jokes grow thin, but generally right before the end of the issue, or right before Deadpool is briefly killed.
It’s something that a lot of characters seem to lack. Chabon, in his essay I mentioned before, attributes lackluster sales in comic books, and, hey, he might be right. All I know is that, as a reader, I get more enjoyment out Deadpool than I do out of anything else.